A Historic Last Look: Smithsonian Returns the Collection of Nigeria’s Benin Bronzes

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In a deal with Nigeria, the Smithsonian is set to give back its collection of Benin bronzes and creates a partnership for future exhibitions and programs.

On Tuesday, October 11th, there will be a breakfast reception and ceremony at the Smithsonian museum of African Arts to transfer ownership of the Benin Bronzes back to the people of Nigeria. The event marks a historic last look at the museum’s Benin bronzes, which will be off display on this day at which time they will be officially returned to their original, rightful home in Nigeria. Key personalities to attend the event includes Lonnie G. Bunch III—Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, Ngaire Blankenberg—Director of the National Gallery of Art, Abba Tijani—Director General of the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments, H.E Uzoma Emenike—Nigeria’s first female ambassador to the U.S and ministers from the Nigerian embassy amongst many others will be present. 

The Smithsonian will return works that it has legal title to own but that are linked to an infamous British raid on Benin City in 1897. Almost half of the collection had been on view at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art. Once they are shipped to Nigeria – at the Smithsonian’s expense – they will be displayed at the National Museum of Benin in Benin City.

Image: A sculpture from the mid-16th to 17th century depicting warriors that is among the Benin Bronzes held by the Smithsonian. The museum said that it would return a majority of its collection of the bronzes to Nigeria. Credit…Franko Khoury/National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution

The agreement represents a significant milestone in the global effort to repatriate looted objects to Nigeria, Abba Isa Tijani, director general of Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments said. Tijani hopes other countries and institutions will follow its model.

“I commend the Smithsonian,” Tijani said. “We have not encountered another museum that has done as much.”

The Smithsonian will give up ownership of the works, which were mostly donated and came into the collection over many years. The agreement calls for at least some pieces to return to Washington on long-term loan in an exhibition the Nigerians will curate, Tijani said.

The agreement with the Nigerian commission will be the first repatriation under the Smithsonian’s new policy of ethical returns that calls for its museum leaders to consider the moral circumstances surrounding the ownership of the 155 million artworks, artifacts and natural science specimens in its collection. The Smithsonian Board of Regents approved the deaccessioning of the objects before they can be returned to Nigeria.

Image: A figure of a king from the 18th to 19th century that is part of the Smithsonian collection. Credit…Franko Khoury/National Museum of African Art Smithsonian Institution

The decision follows years of protests that called on museums to acknowledge their difficult histories, including their roles in the looting of former colonized lands, and to adapt their policies to address racism and other harms. In November, the Metropolitan Museum of Art returned three works to the Nigerian commission and committed to future collaboration. Institutions in Britain, Germany and France have also started to return works, Tijani said.

National Museum of African Art Director Ngaire Blankenberg described the repatriation as the first step in the art museum’s effort to shed its Eurocentric past and forge a new model for a global audience. Last fall, Blankenberg removed the artwork from the galleries, a move Tijani described as “respectful.”

“This is about a new possibility. The repatriation is about past violence and harm,” Blankenberg said. “I don’t believe it ends there. We have to stop the harm and imagine a new way of working, of how we can do this differently together.”

Blankenberg said the new partnership is built on the Smithsonian’s relationship with Nigerian cultural agencies that began in 2015. It will help to transform the African art museum into a vibrant space that connects these treasures of the past to the present and future.

“Using the bronzes as almost archival material, alongside photographs and oral histories and other forms of art, that contemporary arts can draw from them,” she said, explaining how the works might be exhibited in the future. “This is part of a thorough process of reimagining the African art experience … and what a regenerative, decolonized African art museum can be.

“The Smithsonian is a huge bureaucracy, and doing things like this really challenges the system, not because they don’t want to do it but because it is not set up for this kind of thing,” she said.

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